Most educators in our schools and district offices have gone through their own education without the access and opportunities that exist today. To meet the needs of the learners in our classrooms today and align school with the world we live in, there is a need to embrace new mindsets about learning, along with new tools and resources available to make these shifts across diverse classrooms. As I visit schools I see the extremes that exist from classroom to classroom.
In an effort to “transform learning and teaching”, I often hear people question if teachers are willing to embrace technology, but I think the better question is are we willing to change our expectations for how and what students learn? If we only focus on integrating technology rather than creating powerful learning experiences that align with the type of students we want to develop, we will continue to perpetuate the same norms in education with more expensive tools.
A Tale of Two Classrooms
To understand the the difference between adding technology and powerful teaching and learning, here are two examples of classrooms that currently exist in schools across the country:
In this first classroom, the teacher is calling on her 5th graders, one by one to identify each of state and their geographic location. I talked to one of the students who told me they were learning the states because “the teacher thought it was important to know them” and when I asked if she knew a better way to learn about the states, she pointed to the iPad face down on her desk and said, “the internet?”. As I looked around the room, each of the students had their own iPad that was face down on the desk as they were copying the states from an Atlas into her map packet.
The benefit of technology is that is can provide new learning opportunities for students that allows them to access and interact with information in better ways than we did without access to such vast resources. Yet this lesson, or some version of this lesson, is still happening in many “21st century” classrooms with an emphasis over compliance and standardization rather than deep personal learning. This example illustrates the challenge that exists in many classrooms when we add on new resources and expectations to an old paradigm of school.
A different model of teaching and learning exists and I am often inspired by so many great teachers like Ms. Kim. In her classroom, a group of 4th grade students are engaged in a project where they are partnering with local business to understand their challenges and design solutions to impact their local community. In this classroom, groups of students are planning a pitch they are about present to the local water board. At the same time another group is designing a website for their business. Other groups are virtually collaborating with their organization to receive feedback on their product and building prototypes. The technology in this class allows all students access to relevant resources and to connect with people to learn, create , share and solve problems (For all the details and student work check out Project Ideate by @mskimcawkwell).
The power of the teacher is not the information she shares but the opportunities she creates for students to learn how to learn, solve problems, and apply what they are learning in meaningful ways.
Designers of Powerful Learning
What’s important to highlight here is that this project didn’t come from the mandated curriculum. It was designed by the teacher who co-constructed the learning experiences with her students in order to meet the desired learning goals. Both of these classrooms have a device for each student but the learning activities were designed to produce very different learners, citizens, and workers. Technology can allow for powerful learning but there is no substitute for a teacher who designs authentic, and relevant learning experiences based on the unique contexts, strengths, and interests.
Partners in Learning
As Ms. Kim’s students were collaborating with businesses to solve unique challenges, she was learning along side them. The novel solutions were created by the students and she supported them to think through the ideas but allowed them to explore and teach her what they were learning along the way. When teachers embrace their role as a learner, everyone benefits. With so much information at our fingertips and new content and tools being created each day, it is impossible for anyone to know everything. Teachers and students as partners in learning models lifelong learning and empowers students to explore their passions and interests, rather than solely consume information.
Relationships are foundational to learning and the teacher plays a pivotal role in developing relationships with individual students while also creating the community where students develop relationships with one another.
In contrast to the teacher directed classroom that was based on compliance, the structures that Ms. Kim put in place such as community guidelines and regular classroom meetings empowered learners to work together, seek to understand diverse perspectives, solve problems, and communicate effectively with one another and others in the school and local community. if we want to ensure students have the skills needed to be successful and productive citizens, it is critical that we model and practice them in our classrooms.
Connector and Activator
Ms. Kim designed opportunities for students to connect with one another in the class but also information and ideas beyond what she knew or could provide alone. She set up opportunities to connect with local businesses and provided the framework that empowered students to solve relevant problems. This learning experience activated students’ questions, required them to conduct research, work together and create a product to meet the needs of their business partners. Through diverse experiences and learning opportunities, students built on their prior knowledge and strengths to design a product for a business. The power of the teacher was creating the experience. She connected students to the community, and resources that required them to develop the skills, knowledge, and dispositions to solve authentic problems.
Supporting the Evolving Role of Teachers
More teachers today are providing opportunities for their students to connect and learn in powerful ways. There is an increasing focus on collaboration, competency-based learning, use of open resources, project-based learning, and learning environments are shifting to support these new opportunities. These shifts are accelerated by access to technology that has transformed how we learn and interact with the one another. However, making these shifts across countless classrooms is more than equipping schools with technology or creating creative learning spaces. To create powerful learning opportunities for diverse learners, teachers need to be supported to develop new competencies: skills, knowledge and dispositions to leverage resources and tools to support them in their evolving role.